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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

The 2000 Fijian Coup

The journey to Kiribati from the United States, already a marathon of air travel, became an even longer odyssey due to geopolitical tensions. The necessity of avoiding Fiji, in the throes of a military coup deemed unsafe for American travelers, meant our path to Kiribati wound through an additional three days of transit. The intricate dance of colonial history and its lasting impacts on Pacific Island Nations, such as Fiji's coup stemming from tensions between native Fijians and Indo-Fijians—a legacy of British colonial labor policies—underscored the complexities of the regions we were heading to serve.

Our circuitous route racked up over 13,000 air miles, starting from Cincinnati and touching down in San Francisco, Sydney, Brisbane, and Yaren in Nauru before finally reaching Kiribati. With each leg of the journey, the aircraft grew smaller, the runways more diminutive, igniting a mix of excitement and trepidation as we ventured deeper into the Pacific's heart. Despite the concerns about our increasingly tiny planes, there was a reassurance in the thought that our detour was for our safety, a testament to the care enveloping our mission.

The first glimpse of Kiribati from the airplane window was mesmerizing—a slender strip of land dividing the vast expanse of the Pacific, with waters shifting from deep to clear blue, finally blending into a stunning palette of aqua, green, and crystal hues. The challenge of landing on what appeared to be an improbably small runway for our Boeing 737 was met with a mixture of awe and a silent prayer for a safe landing.

Upon touchdown, the vibrant life of Kiribati immediately enveloped us. The welcoming smiles of the people, the lush coconut trees whipping past, and the sight of locals eagerly awaiting arrivals painted a picture of a community vibrant and rich in spirit. The rustic charm of the open-air terminal, brimming with anticipation, was our first real taste of Kiribati's warmth and hospitality.

Stepping off the plane, the hot, humid air was a tangible embrace, a stark contrast to the conditioned atmosphere we'd left behind. The enthusiastic shout of "WELCOME HOME EVERYONE" from a fellow volunteer captured the sentiment of our group—though not quite yet at home, we were on the brink of something profoundly transformative. This was the beginning of a chapter where Kiribati would become more than a place of service; it would become a part of our narrative, a home in the truest sense.

Upon exiting the modest, single-room facility designated for customs and baggage collection, we were warmly welcomed by Peace Corps staff who presented us with a delightful array of local hospitality: coconut drinks, moimoto, and traditional head garlands. Amid the lively chaos, a surprising number of us found ourselves enveloped in generous spritzes of perfume. This left me pondering whether this fragrant reception was part of the customary welcome or perhaps a tactful strategy to preempt any olfactory displeasure amongst the locals. Regardless, we all embraced the gesture with gratitude.

The group, comprising 27 eager individuals, quickly congregated for our inaugural group photo, capturing the excitement and anticipation of the journey ahead. Shortly thereafter, we boarded a bus under the guidance of Sarah, our training officer. Sarah was a formidable presence, her energy and authority unmistakable. Her interaction with Mango Chuck, our bus driver, left an indelible mark on us all. When he proposed dropping us off and returning later, keeping our luggage under his watchful eye during the welcome ceremony, Sarah's vociferous objection made it abundantly clear that his plan was not an option. She insisted on his uninterrupted attendance throughout the event. This episode established Sarah's unwavering resolve and set a tone of strict adherence to protocol that none dared challenge. In a curious twist, Mango Chuck would depart the country months later under mysterious circumstances, leaving us to ponder the unseen currents that flowed beneath our initial days of service. 

Guided by Sarah's vigilant supervision, we made our way to a maneaba, the traditional meeting house, where the elders of Tarawa's most ancient village awaited to welcome us. The maneaba, steeped in tradition and communal spirit, stood as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of Kiribati.

Before we crossed the threshold into this revered space, Sarah, in her characteristic forthrightness, bellowed a series of directives intended to ensure our respect and adherence to local customs. Her instructions were clear: lower your heads in deference, avoid sitting with your feet disrespectfully pointed upwards, gentlemen to sit cross-legged, ladies to keep their legs covered, stand when engaging or being addressed, and, above all, wear a smile as a universal sign of goodwill and camaraderie.

Despite Sarah’s emphatic briefing, the combined effects of the sweltering heat, our collective exhaustion from travel, and perhaps the overwhelming novelty of the experience led, inevitably, to lapses in our adherence to these protocols during the ceremony. Each misstep, a faux pas borne not of disregard but from the human elements of fatigue and adaptation, underscored the learning curve we faced in immersing ourselves within a new culture. 

Upon our entrance into the maneaba, the ceremonial heart of the village, we were greeted with an affectionate continuation of the welcoming rituals. Fresh head garlands were placed upon us, a delicate dusting of baby powder was applied, and a further spritz of perfume enveloped us, leaving us scented like an ensemble of freshly pampered infants. This tradition, I learned, was a gracious accommodation for travelers like us who had been deprived of modern conveniences, such as showers, for days on end. It was a thoughtful gesture that I, for one, deeply appreciated.

We settled ourselves upon intricately woven mats, which adorned the coral base of the maneaba floor. As one of the four men in our group, I found myself seated at the forefront, directly facing the elder men of the village—a positioning that underscored the traditional roles and respect accorded to gender within their society. 

The village elders extended their welcome in the native tongue, a language rich with the melodies and rhythms of the island’s heritage. Bauro, our Peace Corps trainer, served as the bridge between our worlds, translating their words and conveying our responses. The ceremony stretched over what felt like a substantial duration, though my grasp on time had become tenuous at best, blurred by the disorientation of crossing vast geographical and cultural distances. 

This profound experience, marked by the fusion of time-honored customs and the tangible warmth of our hosts, offered us a deep immersion into the heart of Kiribati life, setting the tone for our journey of cultural integration and service.

Upon the conclusion of the welcome ceremony, we made our way back to the hotel, a welcome retreat from the day's heat and festivities. The effects of jet lag mingled with the residue of sweet, perfumed sweat on our skin as we were handed our room keys, the promise of rest and solitude within reach. My anticipation peaked at the sight of an air conditioning unit in our room—a beacon of modern comfort in the sweltering heat.

My roommate, Matt, a tall, redheaded young man with a penchant for adventure and a spirit two years my senior, quickly tempered my enthusiasm. He viewed the air conditioner not as a relief but as an impediment to a more authentic, rugged experience. His philosophy was to embrace the local climate head-on, allowing his body to acclimate naturally to the tropical conditions. "Wait… I want to let my body climatically adjust itself to this weather as soon as possible," he stated, just as my finger hovered over the power button.

Exhaustion overruled any desire for debate on my part. I acquiesced without protest, my only retort a swift pivot toward the sanctuary of the shower. The cool water was a brief escape from the relentless heat of our cement-blocked, oven-like room. Meanwhile, it seemed the reality of our sweltering accommodations prompted a swift change of heart in Matt. By the time the shower's soothing drumbeat ceased, the unmistakable hum of the air conditioning unit, now working vigorously to dispel the day's heat, greeted me. It appeared the allure of climatic adjustment had its limits, and comfort, in the end, won out.

The newfound comfort of our air-conditioned room enveloped me so completely that I surrendered to sleep almost instantly, awakening only with the arrival of the next day. The morning brought with it a small yet poignant reminder of our purpose here, as I discovered a photograph of four garlanded Peace Corps trainees, including myself, gracing the front page of a local newspaper. The headline celebrated the arrival of "Twenty-Seven New Peace Corps Volunteers, Here to Help," a message that filled me with a sense of pride and responsibility, even though the accompanying article, written in the Kiribati vernacular, remained beyond my comprehension.

Curiosity led me to the English section of the newspaper, where I sought something familiar among the foreign script. The weather forecast caught my eye, promising a "fine" weekend with temperatures soaring to 100ºF. This stark redefinition of 'fine' weather underscored the vast differences between my home and this new environment, hinting at the many adjustments that lay ahead. With a reflective pause, I left the newspaper on our hotel room table, stepping out into the reality of Kiribati's warmth.

At the training center that morning, the focus shifted to the practical aspects of our mission. We delved into discussions about the common challenges volunteers typically face, from adjusting to new living conditions to bridging the vast cultural divide between Americans and the I-Kiribati. These sessions provided not only a groundwork for understanding but also a framework for the empathy and adaptability required to navigate our upcoming experiences. It was a stark reminder that, while the climate and the concept of 'fine' weather would require physical adjustment, the true essence of our journey would be in learning to navigate and respect the rich tapestry of cultural differences that define this part of the world.

The cultural orientation underscored a fundamental difference between my background and the societal fabric of Kiribati: the contrast between individualism and a deeply ingrained communal ethos. This distinction was illuminated through my burgeoning interactions with the I-Kiribati, whose hospitality seemed boundless, manifesting in ways both small and significant.

One of the most endearing and surprising aspects of daily life here was the interaction with local buses. In stark contrast to the honking in congested urban centers back home, which often signaled frustration or impatience, the honks here carried a completely different resonance. As I walked alongside the nation's sole paved road, which was remarkably free of the traffic jams, construction delays, and the frenetic pace I was accustomed to, buses would honk not out of annoyance but as a gesture of acknowledgment or greeting.

The first few times I heard the honks, I responded with a wave, somewhat tentatively, unsure of the appropriate protocol. To my delight, the drivers—and sometimes passengers—would wave back, their faces breaking into wide, welcoming smiles. Occasionally, a bus would even pull over, the driver inquiring about my well-being, a genuine display of community concern and interest. These interactions, though brief and often limited by language barriers, left a profound impression on me. They underscored the warmth and communal spirit of the I-Kiribati people, a stark contrast to the more reserved and impersonal encounters I was used to in my own culture.

This openness and friendliness, so freely given, underscored a pivotal lesson in my journey: the importance of understanding, respecting, and adapting to the cultural norms of my host community. It was a reminder that, while I was here to offer support and assistance, I was also a guest privileged to learn from and participate in a culture markedly different from my own. The honks, waves, and brief exchanges became not just a daily occurrence but a symbol of the welcoming embrace of the I-Kiribati people, encouraging me to embrace their culture with an open heart and mind.

This realization during training illuminated the nuances of non-verbal communication and cultural practices that I was just beginning to grasp. The honking of buses, which I had initially interpreted as a friendly acknowledgment, carried a practical purpose in the context of I-Kiribati life. In essence, by waving at the buses, I was unwittingly signaling my desire to board, akin to hailing a taxi in the absence of formal bus stops.

The honks, rather than mere greetings, were indicators that the buses were at capacity and unable to accommodate more passengers. This misunderstanding on my part led to a series of comedic exchanges, where my enthusiastic waves were met with stops, and my subsequent failure to board was met with confusion. The laughter that followed these interactions was a testament to the good-natured disposition of the I-Kiribati people, who found humor in the misunderstanding rather than frustration.

This experience was a pivotal moment in my cultural adaptation process, highlighting the importance of context in communication and the ease with which intentions can be misconstrued across cultural lines. It also underscored the communal nature of I-Kiribati society, where public transportation is not just a means of getting from one place to another but a shared experience that fosters connection and goodwill among its participants.

The laughter that erupted on the bus in response to my unintended faux pas was a gentle, albeit amusing, reminder of my outsider status and the learning curve I faced. It also served as a bridge, however, allowing me to share in a moment of genuine human connection despite the initial misunderstanding. This incident, while minor in the grand scheme of things, was a profound lesson in the value of approaching cultural differences with openness, humility, and a willingness to learn.

Later in the week, we finally embarked on a bus journey with fellow volunteers and a translator, determined to navigate the local transportation system as a cohesive group. Rather than cramming onto partially filled buses, we patiently waited for an empty one that could accommodate us all comfortably. It was a decision made with our safety and convenience in mind, despite the generous offers from locals to rearrange seating arrangements to accommodate us.

After a short wait, our patience was rewarded when a shiny red bullet—a symbol of the newest additions to the public transportation fleet—pulled up to collect us. Excitement mingled with apprehension as we boarded, only to find that the modern exterior belied a lack of basic safety features such as seat belts. In a place where street signs and speed limits seemed like distant memories, our only recourse was to grip our seats tightly and hope for the best as we hurtled down the narrow two-lane road.

Inside the bus, a cacophony of scents enveloped us—cigarettes, perfume, sweat, and the unmistakable aroma of fish—all mingling together in the confined space. Despite the relatively small size of the island, it felt even smaller as we sped along in our red bullet, the verdant landscape blurring past us in a dizzying blur.

Every bump in the road, every fallen coconut, and every stray dog posed a potential hazard, threatening to send us careening off the road and into the ocean or lagoon mere inches away. Yet, amidst the adrenaline rush and the uncertainty, there was an undeniable sense of adventure, a feeling of being fully immersed in the vibrant rhythm of life on Kiribati's roads—a reminder that the journey itself, with all its twists and turns, was an integral part of our experience in this unique corner of the world.

The vast expanse of the Pacific basin commands a staggering one-third of the Earth's surface, surpassing the collective landmasses above sea level. This astonishing fact, as noted by Thomas in 1967, underscores the sheer magnitude of this aquatic realm. However, this seemingly boundless expanse is but a fraction of its former glory, harkening back to a distant era some 200 million years ago.

During that primordial epoch, the Earth's continents were united in a singular landmass known as Pangaea. This convergence was orchestrated by the relentless movement of the planet's geological conveyor belt—the East Pacific Rise—over millions of years. This geological force acted as a unifying agent, gradually pushing all continents together into a solitary supercontinent.

However, the forces shaping our planet are dynamic and ever-changing. Around 150 million years ago, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge emerged as a formidable counterpart to the East Pacific Rise. This geological juggernaut drove the continents westward, overriding the Pacific Plate in a titanic collision that reshaped the face of the Earth. The Americas, propelled by this relentless motion, embarked on a westward journey, setting the stage for the geological tapestry we behold today.

As McEvedy aptly noted in 1998, these monumental geological processes—acting over unfathomable spans of time—have sculpted the landscape of our world, leaving behind a legacy of awe-inspiring grandeur and unparalleled beauty.

Indeed, the dynamic nature of tectonic activity in the Pacific region extends beyond the interactions of the Pacific Plate itself. Several other tectonic plates contribute to the formation and maintenance of continental and oceanic islands, shaping the diverse landscapes we observe today. This intricate interplay is fueled by the phenomenon known as hot spot activity, where localized areas of intense volcanic activity give rise to new landmasses and island chains.

As Thomas noted in 1967, this continuous cycle of creation and alteration has bestowed upon us the myriad island chains scattered across the Pacific region. These chains, stretching across vast expanses of ocean, stand as testaments to the relentless forces of geology that have shaped our world over millennia.

One such remarkable example is the Hawai'ian Archipelago, where the combined effects of hot spot activity and the conveyor belt-like movement of tectonic plates have sculpted a chain of islands unparalleled in beauty and diversity. The formation of each island within the archipelago is a testament to the complex interplay of geological processes, from the eruption of molten lava to the erosion and shaping of landforms by wind and water.

The story of the Pacific islands, with their breathtaking landscapes and rich biodiversity, is a testament to the enduring power of nature to create and transform. It serves as a reminder of our planet's dynamic and ever-changing nature, where the forces of geology continue to shape and reshape the world around us.

Darwin's theory of coral atoll evolution provides a fascinating insight into the dynamic processes shaping the Pacific basin environment. According to Darwin, volcanic islands serve as the initial stage in the evolutionary trajectory of coral atolls. These islands, characterized by their imposing size and rugged terrain, are often protected by barrier reefs that encircle their shores.

In the second stage of coral atoll evolution, the once towering volcanic islands undergo weathering and erosion, gradually diminishing in size and stature. As the forces of nature continue to exert their influence, these islands eventually subside beneath the sea, leaving behind a submerged landscape characterized by an enclosed lagoon surrounded by a barrier reef. This final stage represents the culmination of a gradual process of geological transformation, wherein the former volcanic islands give way to the emergence of coral atolls.

Coral atolls, in their essence, are living entities that depend on specific environmental conditions to thrive. They require optimal sea-level temperatures and salinity levels to support the growth and development of coral reefs. These intricate ecosystems, teeming with life and biodiversity, serve as crucial habitats for a myriad of marine species.

The diverse Pacific basin environment is shaped by a complex interplay of geological features, including deep troughs, volcanic islands, submerged mountains, and coral atolls. These geological phenomena, each with its own unique characteristics and significance, contribute to the rich tapestry of life that inhabits the waters of the Pacific region. From the towering peaks of volcanic islands to the intricate coral reefs of atolls, the Pacific basin embodies the dynamic and ever-changing nature of our planet's geology.

Kiribati, situated within the region of Micronesia, derives its name from the vast number of small islands that comprise its territory. The prefix "micro" aptly describes the multitude of tiny landmasses dotting its expanse. Alongside Kiribati, other nations within the Micronesian region include the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau, all nestled within the expansive Pacific basin.

Kiribati itself is a unique archipelago composed of 32 coral atolls and one raised island. These atolls, formed through the gradual evolution of volcanic islands into submerged coral reefs, create a breathtaking tapestry of natural beauty and diversity. However, despite its stunning landscapes and vibrant marine ecosystems, Kiribati faces an uncertain future due to the ongoing threat of rising sea levels and climate change. 

Indeed, the nation of Kiribati stands at the forefront of the ecological and evolutionary challenges posed by its low-lying geography. With much of its landmass barely above sea level, Kiribati is a nation with an ecological and evolutionary end state of existence. This precarious reality infuses everyday experiences, such as red bullet bus rides, with a heightened sense of adventure and uncertainty. Every journey becomes a reminder of the delicate balance between land and sea, and the ever-present possibility of finding oneself amid the open ocean or within the tranquil embrace of a lagoon in the event of a mishap.

Despite the challenges it faces, Kiribati remains a testament to the resilience of its people and the enduring beauty of its natural surroundings. Its unique position within the Micronesian region underscores the interconnectedness of human societies and the natural world, reminding us of the profound impact of our actions on the fragile ecosystems that sustain us.

The geographical makeup of the atolls in Kiribati, characterized by their small size and proximity to the ocean, creates a unique phenomenon where one could easily toss a bucket of ocean water into the lagoon from various points on the island. This close connection between land and sea serves as a constant reminder of the delicate balance between the two, and the vulnerability of the islands to external factors such as global warming.

In the midst of discussions about global warming, many residents of Kiribati, like my language teacher Mikaio, had only a vague understanding of the issue. While aware that some scientists warned of potential problems, their faith in divine promises, such as God's covenant with Noah to never flood the Earth again, provided reassurance and comfort. Mikaio's unwavering belief in this promise led him to dismiss concerns about global warming, trusting in a higher power to safeguard the islands and their inhabitants.

Inspired by Mikaio's faith and optimism, I too chose not to dwell on the uncertainties of global warming. Instead, I embraced this new life adventure in Kiribati with a sense of gratitude and trust. While acknowledging the potential challenges that lay ahead, I found solace in the belief that, whatever the future held, I was part of a community bound by faith, resilience, and a shared commitment to making the most of each moment. In the face of uncertainty, faith became a guiding light, illuminating the path forward and instilling a sense of peace amidst the waves of change.

It’s so pretty here but scary too.  I heard about global warming before leaving home and wonder if it’s true.  Being here sure makes it accurate to me.  But I guess I trust the US Government. They wouldn’t send us here if they thought it was a severe threat. I asked Mikaio what he felt about Global Warming.  He assured me it was nothing serious.  You know, Mike, he said, they said Kiribati would go under the ocean in the 1980s, and look, we are still here, so don’t worry.

-Journal Entry November 10, 2000-

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